In IPA, the sounds of many symbols are so close that they are indistinguishable to me! For example, [bʊk], [ɓʊk], or [βʊk]. Even though they do have some minor differences, but all a listener like me hears is "book".

So is there any "Simplified IPA" where they contain all possible pronunciations but yet omit all those phonetically indistinguishable symbols?

  • 2
    They're not indistinguishable at all, and anyone trying to learn a language which distinguishes them will either learn them or never acquire the language to any fluency.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 20, 2019 at 3:45

3 Answers 3


The reason that all the different characters for “the same sound” exist is because they’re not the same sound, and trained linguists/linguistic researchers can hear the difference. Any “simplified IPA” wouldn’t be a true “IPA”, and would not be able to accurately represent the difference in sounds; you would end up with the present situation where the spelling of words in a language not suited for the alphabet being used does not accurately reflect the actual pronunciation of the word (for example, Spanish vaca, cow, which some people hear as though it should be spelled baka, because neither b nor v in the Latin alphabet is an accurate representation of the sound used).

  • I totally understand, but is there any system for the "regular people" (not trained linguists/linguistic researchers)!? Because some differences in IPA are truly "too minute"! One really could never tell the difference "without training"! Nov 19, 2019 at 13:18
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    Any system for the "regular people" wouldn't be "universal" in the sense that IPA is; you'd simply end up with Yet Another Not-Quite-Accurate Transliteration Convention. You might as well pick a dictionary that doesn't use IPA (virtually any dictionary aimed at users below the collegiate level would be a good candidate) and adopt its system for representing pronunciations. Nov 19, 2019 at 13:31
  • Another possible source for an alternative pronunciation representation system might be to look at phonetically-based systems for teaching children to read, such as DISTAR or the Pitman Initial Teaching Alphabet [Wikipedia link] [Omniglot link], or any of the alternative systems listed on Omniglot under the headings "Alternative spelling/writing systems" or "Phonetic Alphabets". Nov 19, 2019 at 13:47
  • OK. Is there any statistic research on the IPA usages!? Maybe I could pick some "most often used" alphabets for my language. Nov 19, 2019 at 14:35
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    If the language contains all possible pronunciations, then the full IPA is the only possible solution. If you don't want to deal with the minute differences between e.g. [β], [b], and [ɓ], then your language doesn't actually contain all possible pronunciations, and you can simply choose one of the alternatives to represent whichever sound your language does have. Nov 19, 2019 at 15:22

If you're notating a language that uses [β] or [ɓ] but does not distinguish it from [b], that is, if there are no words such that changing one of these consonants to the other changes the meaning of the word (perhaps because [β] occurs only between vowels and [b] elsewhere), then for most purposes you write them all as /b/; so that is a “simplified IPA”. This is called broad transcription, written with slashes to distinguish it from narrow transcription using brackets. A famous example: English /p/ includes both [p] and [pʰ], which are distinguished in many languages including Zulu, Hindustani, Mandarin.

No language makes phonemic distinctions between all pairs of phones represented by distinct symbols in IPA; but every symbol exists because some language contrasts it with others.


There is SaypU, which tries to creates a universal phonetic alphabet for all languages with only 24 letters, many of which can be used to represent slightly different sounds in different languages.

"a" in SaypU can represent /a/, /æ/, and /ɑ/, depending on the language. "y" represents /j/, /ʎ/, and /ʝ/. "w" represents both /w/ and /ɥ/.

  • I’m not entirely sure this qualifies as a ‘universal phonetic alphabet’ by any means. What happens, for instance, in a language which distinguishes /a æ ɑ/ (e.g. Äiwoo), /j ʎ/ (e.g. Warlpiri, some Spanish dialects), or /w ɥ/ (e.g. French, Abkhaz)?
    – bradrn
    Oct 9, 2020 at 5:50
  • @bradrn, you use diacritics (a, ä, ã).
    – Galactic
    Oct 13, 2020 at 4:31
  • Thanks for clarifying! Do the diacritics have any consistent meaning within SaypU, or are they used in an ad-hoc fashion? I’d call it a ‘universal phonetic alphabet for all languages’ in the former case only.
    – bradrn
    Oct 13, 2020 at 7:59
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    @bradrn, They don’t have any consistent meaning.
    – Galactic
    Oct 14, 2020 at 21:50
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    In that case, I wouldn’t call it a ’universal phonetic alphabet’, since it can’t specify the exact phonetic details of every sound in the same way IPA can. If anything, I’d say it’s a standardised set of mappings for romanization purposes, similarly to e.g. the General Alphabet of Cameroon Languages.
    – bradrn
    Oct 15, 2020 at 0:42

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